Frank Bruni tells college kids to embrace differences

MIDDLEBURY — As a teenager in the early 1980s, New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni decided that in college he would live openly as a gay man.
But when he walked into his dorm room at the University of North Carolina for the first time and saw the enormous poster his new roommate had hung on the wall, which said, “Jesus invites you to a banquet in His honor,” Bruni changed his mind.
His roommate eventually figured out that Bruni was gay, anyway, and told him “it was OK.” At term’s end they parted on friendly terms.
Years later, however, each would realize he had been changed by the other — and for the better.
Addressing a capacity crowd at Middlebury College’s Wilson Hall last week, Bruni questioned whether such experiences were still possible:
“I watch what happens on some campuses now and I wonder: In today’s college world, if I saw that Jesus poster and felt discomfited by it, would I ask for a room reassignment? Would I be granted one? I bet I would. Maybe rightly, because the situation with him and me could have played out in a very different and less positive way. But what turned out to be an important part of my liberal education, and of his, would have been lost.”
Bruni appeared on Jan. 9 as part of the “Listening & Speaking in Public Spheres” series, cosponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council, Middlebury College and the Mellon Foundation.
Bruni’s opening anecdote set for the evening a gentler, humbler tone than he had used for a March 2017 column about the now famous Charles Murray protests at the college — which he had blamed in part on the “emotional coddling” and “intellectual impoverishment” of the students — but his message was the same.
“Identity politics separates us. It sorts and tucks us into cliques and clusters without pathways and points of connection between them, so that we regard each other from a distance that amplifies our distrust, nurtures misunderstanding and feeds a sense of conflict.”
Our digital lives only make this worse, he said.
“Most of us tend not to follow diverse voices but instead voices that let us basically marinate in our own convictions. The whole system is geared for narrowness and sameness, until our consumption of news is just like our consumption of everything else. One note. One thought. Predetermined. Changeless.”
In an article Bruni has cited in the past, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt pointed to similar trends in American higher education, where “a movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”
But emotional safety is just as unreasonable an expectation in college as it is in life, Bruni cautioned, then turned again to the words of liberal commentator Van Jones.
“I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally,” Jones told students at the University of Chicago just days before the Murray incident. “I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back. Because that is what we need from you.”
Jones warned that students were creating a kind of liberalism that was not only useless in the real world but “obnoxious and dangerous.”
Addressing shortcomings in his own field, Bruni pointed out that public distrust of the media existed long before Donald Trump began calling journalists the “enemy of the people” — and for good reason.
In 2012, Bruni recalled, cable news network MSNBC invited him to speak on a panel about gay marriage.
Soon afterward, however, a story broke about anti-gay bullying that presidential contender Mitt Romney was alleged to have committed while in prep school.
The network subsequently changed the panel topic and asked Bruni what kinds of things he might say about Romney. When Bruni’s evenhanded response lacked the liberal partisanship the network was looking for it told him he was no longer needed.
Bruni assured his Middlebury audience, however, that he and his colleagues have been asking themselves, “Where did we go wrong?”
“We cannot be walking away from one another,” Bruni said. “There is so much driving us apart already.”
But there is reason to hope.
“You can understand someone else’s experiences, at least somewhat,” he said. “Empathy and the universality of human emotions carry us across these borders between groups.”
Bruni cited an article actress Molly Ringwald wrote last spring in the New Yorker, in which she comes to terms with the sexual exploitation, grotesque stereotypes and lack of diversity in her and director John Hughes’s teen films in the 1980s.
The revelation came when a gay African-American man, like countless other people over the years, told Ringwald that her films had “saved” him.
Surprised, she asked him why.
One film, “The Breakfast Club,” he explained, had showed him there were “other people like me struggling with their identities.” The lack of diversity didn’t bother him, he added, “because the characters and storylines were so beautifully human, perfectly imperfect and flawed.”
In other words, Bruni said, “He didn’t have to see or hear a gay character or a black character to see and hear his struggle and his pain.”
It is a testament to how much unites us, regardless of category.
Empathy in its truest form isn’t about having warm feelings toward members of our own tribes, Bruni said. It’s the ability to consider and understand the feelings of somebody else’s.
Expanding parameters and rattling presumptions was the point of education, he told students.
“I’d argue that that’s its highest purpose.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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